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Controversial Observations, Uncategorized January 6, 2014

Yoga and Orthodoxy: Compare and Contrast

Assignment: Compare and contrast yoga and Orthodox Judaism.

The panelists are all familiar with both yoga and religious, observant Judaism.  They are all friends of mine in real life.  Some are highly trained yogis and others practitioners.  Note: the ideas and opinions expressed below do not necessarily reflect my theology.  

The Similarities

Sandy Gross:

They’re the same, in that it’s morals and ethics.  It’s more like Mussar (spiritual character development in Judaism).  As far as Orthodoxy, yoga just uses different tools – poses, for example – for us to “practice” applying these morals and ethics (in yoga they’re called Yamas & Niyamas).  Orthodoxy uses other practical tools – the 613 laws.  Both are practices, and practical, and that’s why I like JFX (the Jewish Family Experience, our congregation) so much!  We can always use more tools to help us be more mindful and inspired people:)

Scott Simon:

I think what is interesting about yoga poses – which most people consider “yoga” to be – is that they are not really about getting into shape.  They are actually meant to prepare the body to be able to sit for long periods of time in spiritual quest (meditation etc).  Judaism I am sure has methods to begin the process of getting us ready to enhance our connection with G-d through prayer.   

Sindy Warren:

I agree with Scott’s point about the yoga poses (asana practice) being intended to ready the body and mind for meditation, which can be, in some ways, likened to prayer.  I also like Sandy’s point about both paths being moral and ethical guidelines for proper living.  They can also both be seen as paths for spiritual growth and bringing one closer to one’s own potential.

Sandy Gross:

I view the laws, mitzvot, as very present moment opportunities to connect to G-d.  If one chooses to do them:). Ha. That’s why I think a lot people have connected so well into yoga – learning to integrate your upper arm bone into the shoulder socket properly in a weight bearing position (and other physical alignment hard rules), for example, may not seem very “spiritual”  but to me, it’s integrating mind with body, helping the body to return to harmony – it should be considered spiritual.  Alignment for me is respect for this amazing body and this is extremely spiritual.  I am integrating it with its operating system (G-d?) with every move I make.  I try anyway…that’s why we call it a yoga “practice”  :). 

Karen Marocco:

I think in many ways Judaism and yoga complement each other. Below are some of my thoughts:
For me, yoga is very much a practice of mindfulness. On the surface it’s about being aware of how your body moves/feels, the quality of breathing, what you eat etc. But it’s also about being mindful/aware of your thoughts, habits and actions-even throughout the day when you’re not doing the actual poses. For example, loshon hara  (the Hebrew term for the sin of gossip) is something many of us struggle with – or at least I do. Practicing mindfulness has helped me become more conscious of my words. It’s hard to better yourself when you’re unaware.
In teacher training we had to choose one yoga sutra/teaching that resonated with us and write about it. I chose the sutra surrender to a Higher power because it’s so in alignment – get it, ha! – with Judaism.  When my mom got sick, we turned to science/medicine for help. But ultimately, we believe that it rests with God. We do what we can and then surrender the results to Hashem (God).
Jody Trostler:

Interestingly I believe that my connection to yoga when I started practicing 13 years ago-ish was what was missing for me spiritually in Judaism. I was raised very secular and did not know what I did not know about the power of Judaism spiritually and intellectually. 
As I have learned and grown Jewishly,  some of the common practices of vinyasa yoga have become a bit uncomfortable. OM-ing and bowing/namaste is one of them. I felt a bit uncomfortable in my first yoga class after returning from my first and only Israel trip. I think my experience was so deep and profound spiritually that everything else felt shallow. Now I realize that I was being judgemental in these thoughts. 
I remember Shawna Rosner and I were talking about this years ago and she told me that instead of namaste she would say the Shema. I loved that and I now have adopted that practice (thanks Shawna!). This brings me close to G-d and is a reminder to pray when I am in a good place.
As my Jewish education has expanded and grown through mussar and Sunday school I do see several crossovers in the yoga teachings and mussar. It’s all great stuff and it just reinforces that I am on a path of growth.
The Differences:

Shawna Rosner:

First of all, I believe that Orthodoxy and yoga are mutually exclusive and in my life they remain so. I have always been closely identified with being Jewish and practicing Judaism, and did not turn to yoga to fill my need for religion. However, I found that I really cherished the snippets of philosophy on life that were often times interwoven into my yoga classes (and still do). As I have come to study more Torah, and Mussar in particular, I have found many parallels between yoga and Judaism and some differences as well. I no longer go to a yoga class craving the spiritual lesson as I have found it elsewhere (mostly thanks to JFX). 
My yoga practice is based on a mind and body experience. I try to find peace, balance and equanimity in my yoga practice, but I would be deceitful if I didn’t admit that the physical benefits of the practice are very important to me. I feel better after yoga and I believe this is just one step in becoming a better me and better able to give more of myself to those around me a d the universe as a whole. I also feel this way after studying Torah and Mussar. 
For me yoga is not a soulful experience. By that I mean I do not feel closer to a higher power when practicing. However, as Jody mentioned I do take the opportunity to say Shema during opening and closing of class and when Sanskrit just doesn’t feel right to me. So in essence I bring some Judaism to my mat. 
Thank you for the opportunity to express my views. For those that have not yet read Letters to a Buddhist Jew, as I did in Mussar, I highly recommend it!!
Sindy Warren:
Yoga eemphasizes being in the resent moment.  Learning to sit with the instant discomforts (of he body in asana practice and of the mind in meditation) and not reacting.  To create space betwween stimulus and reaction.  Orthodox Judaism, I think, places a huge emphasis on he future (ie, the World to Come).  Mussar, too, is forward looking and also focused on the post – what should we do in certain situations, looking to our ancestors (the mussar masters) for guidance.  Judaism has a unique way of blending the past with he present and he future – the holidays being representations not nly of our ast but of the present (and future) spiritual energy in the world.
Another interesting difference is the idea of doing or not doing, depending on the practice.  Judaism teaches through action.  Be generous, and you will become more generous.  Do first, then believe.  Yoga teaches the importance of non-action (to wit, the phrase “don’t just do something, sit there”).  

Sandy Gross:

The main difference (although I focus on the similarities mostly:)  is that Judaism is a dualistic religion.  Yoga, is non-dualistic.  G-d is everywhere including and especially in us.  Two quotes on the walks at the new Evolution:
“The sun shines not on us but in us.” John Muir
“My body is my first prop.”  BKS Iyengar
And, yoga is not a religion, it’s considered an (experiential) science.  The Latin root of the word “religion” is to “realign with your origin.” That word religion needs a new PR campaign.   I feel like I am religious then, if you define it that way:). Again, I’m trying!  
Karen Marocco:

Namaste: This is the most uncomfortable part of the yoga practice for me. Namaste is what many teachers and students say when ending a class. Often translated as the light in me honors the light in you (which I think is a beautiful sentiment.) However, literally namaste means “I bow to you.”  Even though people bow their heads as a gesture of respect and not worship I was always taught that you don’t bow to anyone but God. There have been Jews who have chosen death over bowing to another person. 
Sandy Gross (on bowing):
The bowing in Namaste, to me, in this non-dualistic path of yoga, means you’re technically bowing to yourself.  Your higher Self that you share with everyone else… Acknowledging that we are one.  That there really is no separation.  
I think I remember also hearing that the bowing is the representation of the physical, lower-cased self, with the higher Self or light/G-d, energy within that we all share.  
In the OM yoga tradition in which I was trained, we did not bow nor say Namaste. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. 

Thoughts from the Facebook discussion:

Renee:  I think a mindful yoga practice is a lot like living the Kabbalah.  Technically if done properly, EVERYTHING one does is out f gratitude to G-d in both practices – so es, food choices are simple and prayers are offered; positive community; mind/body/spirit connection; ego not important; meditation several times a day…

Ariella:  To be “good” at both you’ve got to be committed. Both are complicated. 
Allison:  You’re always learning with both Judaism and yoga.
Chantal:  I’m very wary of bringing in the spiritual side of yoga as some of the origins really border on avoda zara (idolatry) if not outright… Tread carefully!
Dave:  They’re both misunderstood (and dismissed) by the ignorant…
Wendy:  Yoga is quieting the voices in your head, it is profoundly moving if you let it be, it’s about gratitude on a very deep level, a connection with yourself physically, emotionally and spiritually. Yoga is good for you. There is no doubt about it. 
What are your thoughts, OOTOB readers?  What’s your experience with yoga and/or religious Judaism?  Does yoga satisfy a spiritual or religious need for you?
(For an interesting related read, check out this article and especially the comments.)
Controversial Observations, Uncategorized December 12, 2013

Kids at Risk

I went to get some routine bloodwork done. The woman helping me was clearly “in the know” about Orthodox living, and was proud to show it. After some Jewish geography, she dropped the bomb. “Can I ask you a question?  If your child decided not to be Orthodox anymore, what would you do?”

Seriously. What is it about me that invites these questions??
To be clear, I’m pretty sure just about every Orthodox parent has at some point feared just this. Following are excerpts from a friend of ours, expressing his thoughts when “it” happened to him. It’s long, rambling, searingly honest, and almost verbatim. 

Welcome to the club.

I know what you’re thinking: “not my kid.”  I hope you’re right. But you may be lying to yourself – like so many others.

Yes, I’m just like you. I come from a great family – as does my wife. Our home is loving and open. Our family dynamic is strong. We are a model to so many. We are not poor in any way. Our children have everything they need. 

We did it all right. We have no regrets. Yet it happened to us. 

We learned many lessons the hard way – lessons that have allowed us to keep a strong connection to our struggling child – to keep a truly positive and loving relationship. Lessons that are universal – that apply to ALL children.

We daven [pray] every day: “Hashem [God], give us the strength and wisdom to persevere. Give us the gift of chochma [wisdom] for continued personal growth. Allow us all to come out the other end as greater people.” 

I thought it couldn’t happen to me. I’ve got a great marriage, a happy home, we’re open-minded, warm, and friendly, we don’t have crazy expectations of our children, they have what they need… no, it can’t happen to me. Think again.

Why am I writing this? Mostly for myself – to gain clarity. Writing really helps. I also believe that Hashem has guided us with an extra dose of siyata d’shmaya [Divine assistance] and allowed us to find the perfect people to mentor and guide us through these challenging times. We want to share what we’ve learned – and for the honest sincere parents out there who want the best for their children – we are confident that they will find some valuable lessons in this article.   

Who do you blame? Whose fault is it? How do I take control? How do I show my child who’s boss? These and hundreds of other questions fly through our minds. What will my family say? What will the neighbors say? 

And let’s be honest, in our cruelly judgmental society – where so many people are more concerned about how others perceive them – when we think about “straightening out our child,” is it for the child or for our reputation?   

This child can be the catalyst for the most exceptional personal growth you’ve ever experienced. This child will change you in a way that nothing else ever can. This child is your key to greatness. Are YOU ready? 

They are hurting – they feel like failures – they’re NOT bad kids. They want to belong and feel whole. Treating them as if they’re bad is a guaranteed way to ensure they’ll hate you and the system for a long time – and with good reason. 

I know it’s painful. Feel their pain. Allow it to envelop you. A wise woman who has dealt with many of these challenging situations told me, “Remember, as much as it hurts you, your child has even more pain.”  We, as parents, are in pain. Yet, if we’re healthy we have a life outside of our challenges. Our child is living a nightmare of pain. They want to belong so badly, they want you to be proud of them, and yes – they want to be like everyone else. 

Deep in their hearts (and sometimes not so deep) they want to know what’s wrong. “Why can’t I be like my other siblings?”  It will take them some time to figure themselves out and how they can see themselves as valuable members of a Torah-based society.

These aren’t bad kids! There are very few bad kids. These are kids who don’t fit and they’ve been destroyed so badly inside that they simply don’t care.  Forcing them to conform – pouring your frustration on them – will KILL your child – and you only have yourself to blame. 

The litmus test for this principle is anger and frustration. If you have any anger or frustration towards your child – you’ve got some growing to do.  Let them live THEIR lives, not YOURS. This is really hard. We want the best for our children. We will do anything to see them successful. Yet, it would be a worthwhile exercise to go into a quiet room and ask yourself the following question, “Am I embarrassed of my child in front of my friends?”

Do you believe your child has greatness? Do you know where your child excels? Where are they unique? Where do they stand out? Why are you proud of them? If you can’t answer these questions – you’ve got a problem.

How can you be a good parent and be your child’s best advocate if you don’t believe in them?  We are living in a society where we value children. A family of 10 children is commonplace. This is a real example of our clear values. Parenting doesn’t end with having a child and sending them to school. That’s the easy part. The challenge is to dig deep within yourself to gain a sense of your child’s greatness and steer him in that direction.

Have a picture in your mind of them being successful in the future. It’s not enough to believe it – although it’s a great first step – you must articulate it. Again and again.

This doesn’t mean you have to approve of what they’re doing. Nor do you have to share their values. But you MUST appreciate their inherent goodness and potential – and you must find the areas in which they excel.

We all know that Hashem created each and every person as a unique individual with a unique set of talents. As a parent you’ve been charged with helping your child find the areas where they can excel. Are they artistic? Dedicated? Funny? Thoughtful? Creative? Musical? Friendly? Hard-working?

What do they enjoy? Find those areas and encourage them. Please don’t be bound by what others find acceptable – don’t abdicate your parenting to them. If your child doesn’t feel that you believe in them – you’re a failure as a parent.   Hashem has given you a great gift – the greatest gift – a child. You may be a Rosh HaYeshiva [spiritual head of a rabbinical institution] or a CEO, you may be a millionaire and a macher. All of that pales in comparison to your role as a father or mother. You will ultimately be judged on how you dealt with your children.

Separate your nisayon [test] from their nisayon. You’re not a BAD parent (I hope) – recognize that Hashem has given them a nisayon – and you CAN’T win their nisayon for them. You can only deal effectively with your nisayon. Welcome to the gift of growth. This is an unparalleled opportunity.

We only grow when we are challenged – and this challenges us like nothing else

We only grow when we relinquish control – and that’s the only way to succeed

We only grow when we REALLY rely on Hashem – and now we’re in a foxhole

We’re forced to find the best in them

We’re forced to keep our mouths shut

We’re forced to reassess our parenting skills

We’re forced to think about the values we hold dear – and what is being transmitted to our children. 

Stop the religious fight. They’re empty inside and feel apathetic (at best) towards yiddishkeit [Judaism]. 

Do you think they don’t know what’s right and wrong? Do you think they need your reminders? Do you really think it’ll help? So GIVE IT UP. Never tell them the obvious. It’s counterproductive.

Your job is to be totally positive and not demanding. Ask yourself, “Why is it so important for me to mention this halacha [law]?” If it’s for your reputation – forget it! They will see right through you. If it’s because you’re worried about their neshama [soul] – then the right question is, “What’s the most effective way to engage them?” It’s not about getting them to do the right thing today – it’s about allowing them to begin to feel connected again. If they feel connected everything else will follow.

Focus on the joy in mitzvos – don’t expect them to join in – allow them to see the experience.

How real are mitzvos to you? Are they an expression of ahavas Hashem [love of God]? Are they an expression of hakoras hatov [gratitude] to Hashem? Do you live with “ivdu as Hashem b’simcha” [the concept of serving God with joy]?  If you’re just “going through the motions” your kid knows it – this is a wakeup call for you – to start making Torah and mitzvos real for you. You can fool a lot of people… but not your kids. 

Remember the choice is yours – will you sit and kvetch about how “the system” is at fault… or will you recognize the great gift Hashem has given you – the incredible opportunity to be forced to grow as a person. If you can shift your perspective – this can be the greatest growth opportunity you have ever experienced. 

I learned that whatever my gut told me was wrong! It was quite a humbling experience. I was convinced that it was my job to be mechanech [an educator], and I learned that it was my job to let go. It’s my job to fix my child? Wrong again – it’s me who needs the fixing.

No one is equipped to deal with this alone – and if you think you are – you need help more than everyone else – because it means that you’re an arrogant fool as well.

Please, I beg of you, don’t speak to your friends for advice, don’t ask your parents. Speak to someone who is an expert in this field. It can save your child’s life. 

Finally, pray.  Let’s be honest – for many of us it’s hard to make davening [prayer] real. I remember the lyrics of a song from when I was young. “You can get up every day and pray those same quotations, you can do it all on the outside going through all the motions…”  These words always spoke to me – as I recognized how shallow much of my davening was.

Remember this nisayon [test] is your ticket to greatness. Don’t squander the opportunity kvetching. You can make your davening real. You can beg! You can speak from the depth of your heart and soul….

There’s more. Much more. All of it honest and growth-oriented.

My answer, then, to my erstwhile questioner in that random suburban lab, should have been: “If my kids, God forbid, decide to give up this faith that means the world to me, I sure hope I can be just like this writer.”

Uncategorized February 28, 2013

I Will Never Be Orthodox. Can I Still Be Part of the Community?

Dear Ruchi,
family currently lives 7 miles from the Chabad shul that we attend, so we drive to/from
Shabbos services (though we do park at the church across the street).
Our son doesn’t wear a yarmulke on a daily basis. We have a television
in our home and our kids watch appropriate shows on a limited basis. Our
home is not kosher (yet!). The point is, clearly, we are not Orthodox
and I’m not sure that we ever will be. We are not prepared to sell our
home and move closer to the shul so that we can walk to Shabbos
services.  Also, because there are so many rules/laws/customs, I am
overwhelmed and don’t know where or how to begin.
of that said, can we ever really become a part of the Orthodox
community? Everyone has been very nice, but there’s a big difference
between being nice and being inclusive. Will it ever be OK for me to
invite an Orthodox child to our home for a playdate (with reassurance
that I will serve food on paper plates and will not mix milk/meat…I’m
sure there are other things that I would need to do, but I have no idea
what that might be!)?
I be able to actually become friends with some of these women or is it
frowned upon to have non-Orthodox friends because of the difference in
lifestyle? I met a very nice woman at the weekly Kabbalah café and would
like to see if she’d like to meet for coffee, but I’m not sure if
that’s acceptable because I doubt that Starbucks is kosher?? I don’t
want to put her in the awkward position of having to say “no,” so I just
haven’t asked.
guess what I’m really asking is are we ever going to be “Jewish
enough”? And how do I even begin to learn all of the customs that I
would need to learn in order to fit in better? I have asked if there is a
class for people wanting to become BT, but it isn’t offered here. My
husband manages better than I do because of his upbringing,
but it’s hard to say to him “tell me everything I need to know” because
there are a million minutiae (i.e. 39 categories of work prohibited on Shabbat, 613 mitzvot).
For example, he was given the honor of an aliyah last week and had to
say that he couldn’t because he’s a Levite and the Levites had already
had an aliyah (so he held/carried the Torah instead). The point is, I’d
never even heard anything remotely like that before and would have been
honored to accept, which would have been wrong (I realize that as a
woman, this wouldn’t happen, but it’s an example of how little I know).
How can I raise observant Jewish children when I know so little? I feel
like I need a brain transplant or something. 🙂
I know no one in the Orthodox
community and have so many questions and concerns. I want to “get it
right” for our children because this is important to me. If we can never
be accepted, then does it make sense to join this congregation? I would
welcome your honest thoughts and feedback.

Dear Lauren,
You’ve touched on many different points here in your email, so I will just address them in the order you’ve asked.
1. It’s unclear to me whether you are interested in becoming more observant/Orthodox, but are deterred because of social/logistical obstacles, or you just don’t see yourself ever following all those restrictions.  Do you believe in the heart of Orthodox philosophy?  Do you wish you could be more observant, but lament the obstacles, or do you feel a sense of relief that you’re not?
2. I’m also a bit confused because you say on the one hand that you’ve met a few people that you’d like to further your social relationships with, and that you do attend the Chabad shul on occasion, but later state that you don’t know anyone in the Orthodox community.  Do you mean you know them casually but not well enough to ask these “loaded” questions to?  Are you friends with these acquaintances on any level?
3. Would it be OK for you to invite over an Orthodox child with attendant reassurances?  The answer is yes!  What a nice invitation!  But truthfully, not everyone will feel comfortable with that – not because they’d suspect you of being duplicitous, G-d forbid, but because if you don’t know the laws really well, it’s pretty easy to make a mistake.  Some families will be OK with it and you’ll have to learn to not take personally the discomfort of those that aren’t.

4.  Ditto with your friendships.  Most people in Chabad communities (I’m not sure if the community is a Chabad one) are very inclusive and are comfortable being friends with various types of Jews.  Other, more insular communities, might be less so.  Here in Cleveland, for example, it would be my Orthodox friends’ pleasure to go out for coffee (Starbucks is always safe – even though there is a controversy involving the Starbuckses that serve non-kosher sandwiches, you can always get a juice or something) with a non-Orthodox friend they met at the gym or something, and especially at a Jewish class or venue.  When I look around at my community, I think the answer to your question about your personal friendships would be a resounding yes.

5. Are you ever going to be Jewish enough?  That’s between you, your husband and G-d – and no one else.  No matter where you are on the spectrum, there will always be some that don’t consider you Jewish enough and some that consider you a fanatic.  Learn to ignore judgmental people on both sides.

6. How can you begin to learn?  If there’s a Chabad shul, I would imagine classes couldn’t possibly be far behind.  There an organization called “Partners in Torah” where you are matched up to a study partner over the phone for a once-a-week study session on any topic of your choice.  It’s free, and amazing.  Look them up.  Is there maybe a community close to yours that has an educational organization for beginners?  Of course, there’s lots of stuff online, but personal connections, relationships, and community are key.  AND finding a rabbi/mentor to guide you in this journey.

7. Regarding brain transplants: you have exactly the brain that G-d wants you to have to fulfill your unique purpose in life!  🙂 

All the best, and wishing you lots of success,

Dear readers,

Would you add anything?  Have you “been there, done that”?

Uncategorized January 8, 2013


Dear Ruchi,

I am so confused I don’t know what to think.  When I started studying about Judaism with you, it sounded so beautiful, sweet, and positive.  I met so many nice people who warmly welcomed me into their homes.  I wished I could have that Shabbat experience, faith, and love in my home.

Now it is a few years later.  I have become much more observant, maybe even what you would call “Orthodox.”  I see the flaws in the community.  I see that lots of people are not sweet or warm.  I see judgmentalism and rudeness.  I feel kind of deflated.  Why didn’t you tell me?


Dear Disillusioned,

Let me begin by expressing my dismay at your disillusionment.  You seem not only dejected and therefore possibly stunted in your Judaism, but also that you feel I have done you a disservice by not opening your eyes to the flaws and difficulties of observant life in advance.


Imagine that you are dating a guy that you are really excited about.  Finally, you feel like maybe this is Mr. Right.  He’s kind, sweet, thoughtful.  You meet a married girlfriend for coffee and fill her in on your life.   She says, “Oh, honey, they all start out that way.  Let me tell you what married life is REALLY like.  He’ll leave his stinky socks on the floor and gain 15 pounds.  He’ll ignore you when the football game is on and burp loudly even though you hate it.  There are going to be times that you’ll wonder why you ever thought this was a good idea.  And THAT,” (she drops her voice ominously) “is with a GOOD man.”  (Deep, long-suffering sigh.)

Has your friend done you a service or a disservice?  Is she right?

Another analogy:

You schedule a meeting with a new school for your kids.  You meet the director of admissions who shows you around, and extols the virtues of the school.  You ask good questions and get good answers.  You like the look and feel of the school.  Everyone seems to really like it there.  You join.

After a few months you start to notice it’s not all roses.  There seems to be some underlying tensions between some of the administrators that filters down to staff satisfaction.  Some of the policies of the school don’t sit well with you.  But you still like the school in general, and are happy to spend the extra money to send your kids there.

Was it the job of the director of admissions to inform you of the politics and every policy of the school?  If a friend would have filled you in on all the behind-the-scenes negative stuff, is it a favor?  Is it right?  Would it have changed your opinion?


Is there any institution, school, company, family, religion, community, city, that doesn’t have flaws?  That doesn’t have negativity?  That doesn’t contain people who aren’t good role models?  Does that mean the institution or community is inherently flawed?

Here’s what Elie Wiesel said on the subject:

“A credo that defines my path:

I belong to a generation that has often felt abandoned by God and betrayed by mankind.  And yet, I believe that we must not give up on either. 

Was it yesterday – or long ago – that we learned how human beings have been able to attain perfection in cruelty?  That for the killers, the torturers, it is normal, thus human, to act inhumanely?  Should one, therefore, turn away from humanity?

The answer, of course, is up to each of us.  We must choose between the violence of adults and the smiles of children, between the ugliness of hate and the will to oppose it.  Between inflicting suffering and humiliation on our fellow man and offering him the solidarity and hope he deserves.  Or not.”

Open Heart, 2012

You wonder why people in the Orthodox community are flawed.  It’s because humanity is flawed.  But let’s not give up on Torah, on mitzvah observance, on humanity.  You may wonder why the religion didn’t “make” those people better.  It’s because religion can’t “make” anyone anything.  A
religion can’t make someone better, because he has to do the work to bring it
from his head to his heart to his actions. Free will is the arbiter
here and I don’t think anyone would want it taken away.

So, to my dear burned out friend.

Remember the day you discovered your parents weren’t perfect?  Didn’t know everything?  Wasn’t that devastating?  But now you probably see that although they’re not perfect, they did much good and taught you a lot.


I hope that you can see the meaning and beauty in the life that Torah outlines despite the fact that not all its adherents lead wonderful lives.  I could extol the virtues of the mitzvah-observant “lifestyle” and even its community with so many examples of truly incredible people who lead beautiful and wonderful lives, both in and out of the limelight.  But this is neither the time nor the place to do so, because you know they’re there.  You’re not talking about them.  You’re talking about the others.

Who are the “real” Orthodox?  The great role models you encountered at your gateway to observant life, or the poor role models that you met later on in your journey?  I can’t answer that because Orthodoxy is a human invention.  But I will say this:

To the extent that a Jew is following Torah, his actions will be beautiful.

Because the same Torah that says to keep kosher, enjoins us not to judge those that don’t.
And the same Torah that says to have humility and modesty begs us not to gossip about those that don’t.
And the same Torah that pleads with us not to neglect Shabbat forbids us from embarrassing another human being.

When you find Jews who are keeping all the man-to-God commandments, and are neglecting the man-to-man commandments, you have the most toxic, ugly mix possible.  You have a classic chillul Hashem (desecration of God’s name).  You have before you a person for whom there is a total disconnect.  For whom his relationship to God is stunted, confused, or dead.  For whom Judaism is in his body but not in his heart.  Maybe he is keeping the external ritual laws out of habit or social pressure, but this is incomplete and warped Judaism.

But this is the human condition.  You are disillusioned, yes, because to think that Orthodoxy can magically transform us from all our human flaws of impatience, rudeness, judgmentalism and the rest – is, indeed, an illusion.  When you sign up for Orthodoxy, you don’t buy a KGB of rabbis who force you to comply with anything.  You’re on your own, there.  And if you want to keep Shabbos and be rude, yes, you will have the free will and the space to do just that.


Did you know that Orthodox people struggle with the same character flaws as everyone else?  WE ARE REGULAR PEOPLE.  We are trying, but we’re not perfect.  We are learning, but we may not always apply what we learn.  We are all different.  We are not lumpable together.  Our rabbis and teachers constantly tell us not to judge.  Although we sometimes fail, can we try together to succeed?

I know we’ll both be richer for it.

Uncategorized December 19, 2012

Fiddler on the Roof: an unfavorite movie

I’ve learned that Fiddler on the Roof is one of those universal “Jewy” references that people love to, well, reference.  In fact, I’ve definitely referenced it a few times right here.  And truth be told, that movie has brought me to tears – tears of deep emotion around our beloved traditions, children coming of age, the inevitable assimilation of some of our children, the endless anti-semitism.  And, too, it has made me laugh so hard I’ve had tears in my eyes (the dream scene!).  The music is absolutely magnificent both thematically and musically.

So why is it my unfavorite movie?

Here’s what I think.  See, my grandmothers, who are (thank God) still alive, remember the shtetl.  But as I suspected all along, and unscientifically “confirmed” in my recent research project on the subject, most Jews in the world do not have a living relative who remembers living in the shtetl.  So for most of them, impressions of the shtetl are largely formed by movies such as Fiddler.

What’s wrong with that, you may ask?

Well, a few things.

1. No one in that movie actually seems to know why anyone is keeping any of the Jewish observances.

The trademark song “Tradition” basically says, we have no idea why we do these things, but it’s our tradition so we’ll do them anyway.  Now, I have no need to romanticize life in the shtetl (just as I have no need to romanticize life as a modern-day Orthodox woman) but I do want the truth as I have experienced it to be told.

In my grandparents’ families, there was a deep education and connection with the meaning of the observances, such that my grandparents still recall and repeat today.  In fact, I feel that the movie disrespects their experience.  Of course I am sure that there were some families who just observed out of habit or social pressure, but an entire village?  Even the rabbi is a little clueless, which brings me to…

2. The rabbi is a fool.

Here are his most brilliant, sparkling lines, full of wisdom, depth and guidance (not).  This is still a problem today.  I see some “shtetl-era” books being issued for Jewish kids today.  Most of the time the rabbi is totally unkempt and stupid.  Again, some rabbis are unkempt and I’m sure that some rabbis don’t have particularly good advice, but for this to be the “shtetl-era” rabbi image emblazoned in the minds of your typical American Jew?  What happened to respect for our scholars and leaders, for our role models, and those more learned?  What kind of message is that for our kids?

My grandparents describe the utter reverence for their holy rabbis; the deep respect accorded them by the parents of the household; how the members of the shtetl would vie for the privilege of caring for their needs, hosting them in their homes, attending their lectures.  Where is any of that?  The question about waiting for the Messiah is a good one; why is no response given?

3. Yentl the matchmaker is a caricature but her impressions remains.

To this day when I tell people about how many in the Orthodox world meet and date they immediately think of Yentl.  Yentl of the ugly wife and the blind husband: a match made in heaven.  Granted, “dating” in the shtetl is not identical to Orthodox dating today, even when a “matchmaker” is employed, but I believe this image has damaged the reputation of the matchmaker, casting him/her in the role of “arranger of marriages” rather than how it really is today, which is “arranger of blind dates.”

I’m sure there’s more, but these are the top three that come to mind.  And lest you all think I’m just a Jewish humor grinch be it known that I love to laugh and think lots of things are funny.  But sometimes, I’ve learned, I think different things are funny or enjoyable than other Jews, because of my Orthodox orientation.  The “Jewish” things I find funny are more like inside Orthodox jokes, whereas I find “typical” Jew jokes corny.

And as far as Fiddler, I will end where I started: it’s a masterpiece and a classic.  And a bit sad, because for many viewers, this, and only this, remains the vision of our rich shtetl era.

Interviews, Uncategorized July 23, 2012

Meet Libby, my Chassidic Friend: an Interview

I’d like to introduce you to my new friend, Libby S.  Libby is a woman, a mother, and wife.  She belongs to the Vizhnitz group of Chassidus [Hasidism].  Libby has agreed to open her private life to all of you, in the hopes of helping me reach my goal on this blog: Jewish unity via mutual respect and education.  I am really grateful to her for this, and look forward to having you all learn from her life.

Please note that English is not Libby’s first language.  Yiddish is her first language.  I have added some translations and clarifications in brackets.